When you (fairly) civilly disagree about God: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
Last weekend, a fabulous, mentally satisfying trip to Trivandrum for the first ever Matrubhumi International Festival of Letters had me in conversation with interesting panelists on the ever-disturbing question, ‘Do We Need God?’ The atheists and the believers debated quite civilly. Expectedly, for me, the atheist argument was ‘flat, stale and unprofitable’ and ‘so yesterday’ as in mid-20th century.
What I found interesting was to learn from the Kenyan activist Monicah Wanjiru that her country’s name means ‘Where God lives’. Monicah’s family turned Christian several generations ago because of the influence of local European missionaries but she also has tremendous respect for her mixed Kikuyu and Masai heritage.
Her explanation of her tribal religion as ‘all things belong to God’ reminded me of the opening lines of the Isha Upanishad: Isha vasyam idam sarvam, yatkimcha jagatyam jagat. Tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma gridhah kasya svid dhanam, meaning ‘all of nature, all creation, is pervaded by God; whatever is in the universe is because of and under the control of Almighty God. Give up all that is unjust and enjoy all that is pure joy. Don’t covet or unfairly take away or deny the wealth of any other person or creature’. Put briefly, it means ‘don’t be jealous, don’t be greedy; don’t steal.’
Stealing, as we all know, has several operational procedures. To slyly steal without the victim’s knowledge is ‘chori’. To say ‘Hand it over’ or, as the English highwayman once said, ‘Stand and deliver’, meaning ‘Stop and hand over your valuables’ is technically ‘mugging’ in the Americas but old-fashioned dacoity in South Asian countries. Yet another kind of stealing is to take someone’s money for a specified purpose or on certain terms but fail to keep one’s word. That is the dreadful ‘hadap’, a popular method of stealing in India. Builders, self-styled educationists, fraudulent job agents and such folkloric characters have made the news in this department. Some may not have become famous yet but probably will, sooner or later, when those they cheated start going after them.
As for jealous or greedy colleagues, neighbours, frenemies, and, alas, family - who has not suffered because of one or the other? So the thing to ask oneself is, ‘Have I, too, been guilty of jealousy or greed?’ Being small-minded, saying unkind things, pushing and shoving in the lift, in the shop, on the road and, horrors, at a holy place, is also being greedy and stealing someone else’s place and right to dignity.
The concept of ‘paying for one’s sins’ is the biggest operational difference I could discover between the ‘godly’ and the ‘godless’. But, I realised, there was a crucial difference between the two regarding what actually constituted ‘godliness’. A person who cares for others, especially the disadvantaged and the downtrodden, may or may not believe in God. Similarly, a person who gives money to the temple, mosque, church or gurdwara, and outwardly seems godly may actually be a chor, dakait or hadapist.
The discussion in Trivandrum re-nunanced such points for me that should be fairly obvious but had become obscured by the greed, jealousy and ungodliness of our age.